Forward in Faith
A word to friends who are following my blog: I am retiring from active ministry, so this is my last weekly sermon. However, I do intend to keep writing and will be making regular posts once I am settled in my new home.
Readings: Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42
The day has arrived. The plane really is taking off. This is my last Sunday in the parish before my retirement. As I thought about what to say to this parish that is so much a part of my life, whom I have grown to love and care for more than I can ask or imagine, to whom I owe so much, I wanted to reflect on where it all started. I went back and read two sermons that I have preached previously on these readings. Those sermons are far from what I would preach today.
The first was from 2002 when I had been in the parish for only a couple of years. I preached on the Old Testament lesson about how God tested Abraham and about how difficult it is to put our trust in God. “Take your son Isaac,” God says to Abraham, “and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” It is truly a text of terror. Abraham must grapple with the reality of what God is demanding of him. God is asking him to offer his son, the one he and Sarah waited for so long to bring into the world. Abraham shows complete trust in God. He does not know how God will provide, just that God will. At just the right time Abraham’s eyes are opened to see what he was not able to see before. He sees the ram caught in the bushes and understands that God has provided it to be sacrificed instead of his son. As Christians it links us directly to our story as God provides Jesus to die for us, to be our salvation.
That theme of trusting in God’s promises, trusting that God will provide, understanding that God has provided, is what I chose to preach on that Sunday. “Trust is an issue in our congregation”, I said. “How do we trust clergy when we consider the number of priests that have served this congregation already? Why would we trust someone with the pain and suffering that goes on in our lives if we think that person may be gone in a year or two? How do we trust that we have a stable community in which to worship? How do trust that God will help us to overcome the financial woes that seem to be part and parcel of our church life? 'I don't go to church', we say, 'to read in the bulletin every week that the congregation is in debt.' ”
It was an instant reminder of where we were in the first part of my ministry here. I remember how difficult it was to gain the trust of people who were hurting from the past. I remember the comments about not wasting our money by paying into a sinking hole. I remember the hurt, hopelessness and frustration that people felt in dealing with the Church Centre.
By 2005 when I preached on these readings again, things had shifted, at least from my perspective. I preached about hospitality, about our need to be an open and welcoming community of faith. I spoke about my experience in visiting South Africa in 1998. “Africans understand hospitality in a wonderful way”, I shared with you. “When I attended the Women’s Festival in Harare, we were invited to visit another African country and to stay in someone’s home. It was my privilege to be hosted by a pair of South African women who lived in Seshego, a township near Johannesburg. When I first arrived, they introduced me to the family. A shy little girl came up to me and thrust a picture into my hand. Across the top of the picture she had printed dumele. It means “You are welcome here,” she told me. I never experienced anything to the contrary.”
I spoke about our need to become a welcoming place. It is there in the gospel for this morning. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” Jesus said. And remember that it was risky to welcome the followers of Jesus. The reward could be persecution and even death. Welcoming Jesus meant not only giving hospitality, but also hearing the message that Jesus came to give.
I went on to remind the congregation about what a wonderful experience it is to be welcomed. It is something that everyone who walks into our church should feel. They should feel as if they have come home. It is our most effective evangelistic tool. It is our call to love God and love neighbour. It is most of all the way that we are able to show the grace of God at work in our lives. I realized as I reread that sermon how much change had already taken place in those three years. It was the beginning of this parish’s growth in faith and maturity.
The message I have for you today is still about trust and welcoming but in very different ways, for this is a community that has made great strides in assuming responsibility, in taking a risk about the future, in offering hospitality to the strangers in our midst, in opening the doors wide to welcome people into the family of God, and perhaps most significantly to be good stewards of what God has entrusted to us.
If anything I have preached about lasts into the future, if you remember anything that I have said over the years I hope it will be the two things that are most dear to me. The first is about God’s grace, the second quite related to it, that through God’s grace we see Christ in others. We are loved by God. God graces us, not because we deserve it, but because it is in God’s nature. The grace of God accomplishes great things in our lives. Through the grace of God working in us, great things happen. Jesus said that if we have the faith of a grain of mustard seed we could move mountains of hatred, of indifference, of pride, of suffering. Through the grace of our efforts, through prayer, through the sacraments, through the word read, spoken and preached, we receive sufficient grace to move those mountains, grace sufficient to our needs. We reach out, we touch, we use. Grace increases. Others see it at work in our lives.
The second is that through God’s grace we are able to see Christ in others and allow others to see Christ in us. To quote Paul, “Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” Remember that with the love of God empowering us we can do great things in spreading God's kingdom. We can confront each day of our lives with the determination to love one another and allow the Spirit of God to bring love and grace to those with whom we come in contact.
I have heard from some people that you don’t know what you will do without me. I have a reasonably good idea of what you will do. You will continue to be the people of God. You will continue to hold one another in prayer. What a powerful praying community this is! You will continue to support the ongoing ministry of the parish and FaithWorks through your generosity. You will continue to do the kinds of ministry that you do, reading, singing in the choir, serving at the altar, supporting our youth, teaching in our Sunday School, visiting the sick and shut in … The list goes on. And in case you think that you are not on that list, at the heartbeat of the congregation are you, the faithful worshippers who are here Sunday by Sunday being the church. The body of Christ includes all it members and needs the gifts and ministry of all its members.
So once again it is about trust. Many things will change during this time of transition. No doubt many things need to change. Trust in the leadership that has been raised up in this place. Trust in their ability to find a new priest with the vision to take you where you need to go. Trust in the Diocese for all they are helping to bring about in the Church Centre. Above all, trust that God has great things in store for this parish.
I see Christ in you. You have been Christ to me. I will cherish my time with you forever.
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